Was Lincoln Gay?

Was Abe Lincoln gay? A new book – The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp – has made this the subject of heated debate of late. Here are a few links if the subject interests you:

– Here is Richard Brookhiser in the NYTBR:

The prose is both jumpy and lifeless, like a body receiving electric shocks. Tripp alternates shrewd guesses and modest judgments with bluster and fantasy. He drags in references to Alfred Kinsey (with whom he once worked) to give his arguments a (spurious) scientific sheen. And he has an ax to grind. He is, most famously, the author of ”The Homosexual Matrix.” Published in 1975, it was a document of gay liberation. Since the other president sometimes thought to have been gay is the wretched James Buchanan, what gay activist wouldn’t want to trade up to Lincoln? Still, obsession can discover things that have been overlooked by less fevered minds.

– Andrew Sullivan adds his unique and passionate response in the New Republic (for more check out his blog):

How gay was Abraham Lincoln? By asking the question that way, it’s perhaps possible to avoid the historically futile, binary question of “gay” versus “straight.” Futile, because we are talking about a man who lived well over a century ago, at a time when the very concepts of gay and straight did not exist. And C.A. Tripp, author of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln was, despite the crude assertions of some reviewers, a Kinseyite who believed in a continuum between gay and straight. If completely heterosexual is a Kinsey zero and completely homosexual is a Kinsey six, Tripp puts Lincoln at five. Reading his engrossing, if uneven, book, I’d say you could make a case that Lincoln was, in fact, a four. It’s going to be a subjective judgment, and I’m no Lincoln scholar. In any particular piece of evidence that Tripp discovers, I’d say it’s easy to dismiss his theory. But when you review all the many pieces of the Lincoln emotional-sexual puzzle, the homosexual dimension gets harder and harder to ignore.

– TNR’s formal review by Christine Stansell:

n his very naïveté, however, Tripp compiles a dossier of ambiguities–not truths, but ambiguities–worth considering. He wants to trumpet the unassailable truth of Lincoln’s homosexuality–or, in his more nuanced moments, what he implies to be bisexuality. His bullish proclamations are easily countered, and not just by the heterosexists and the homophobes whose attacks he predicts will result from his revelations. But he puts forward some oddities. Too insubstantial in themselves to prove anything about Lincoln, they do add to a larger body of evidence concerning sex before sexuality–that is, bodily life before the advent of the modern notion of an all-encompassing state that lies at the core of identity.

The Weekly Standard review (written by a former colleague/co-author of Tripp, now unhappy with the end result) attempts to debunk the excesses and exaggerations of the books author:

The argument is “irrefutable,” Gore Vidal blurbs on the book’s cover. And, in fact, Tripp’s work is as good as the case gets for Lincoln’s walk on the Wilde side.

Unfortunately, that is merely a way of saying the Gay Lincoln Theory fails any historical test. “Useful history” is always a dubious kind of scholarship. But in its attempt to be useful for gays today, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln reaches far beyond the merely dubious. The book is a hoax and a fraud: a historical hoax, because the inaccurate parts are all shaded toward a predetermined conclusion, and a literary fraud, because significant portions of the accurate parts are plagiarized–from me, as it happens.

– Gore Vidal discusses the book in Vanity Fair:

What then did researcher Tripp discover over the last decades about Lincoln’s lavender streak and those soft May violets? The answer is a great deal of circumstantial detail, of which some is incontrovertible except perhaps to the eye of faith, which, as we all know, is most selective and ingenious when it comes to the ignoring of evidence.

What do I think? I have no idea really, but if I had to choose based on the articles above I would say I lean closer to Brookhiser than any (shocking I know!). On Andrew’s gay scale I may put Lincoln at a 2 or 2.5, but I think Brookhiser is right when he emphasizes Lincoln’s accomplishment’s and his impact on this nation.

Kevin Holtsberry
I work in communications and public affairs. I try to squeeze in as much reading as I can while still spending time with my wife and two kids (and cheering on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Michigan Wolverines during football season).